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Google's hard times in Washington aren't over

The search giant’s CEO skipped out on testifying before Congress this week, but Google may not be able to put it off for long.

Sundar Pichai in an olive green jacket and jeans, standing onstage at the Shoreline Amphitheater Mountain View.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was invited to testify before Congress this week, but he declined.
James Martin / CNET

Google escaped a few hours in the hot seat Wednesday when it skipped a high-profile tech hearing in Washington, DC, but the search giant may have made itself an even bigger target for lawmakers down the road.

Facebook, Twitter and Google were summoned to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on election security, privacy and abuse on their popular social media platforms. But while Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sat through hours of grilling -- and Dorsey even answered questions in a four-and-a-half hour session with the House Energy and Commerce Committee later in the day -- Google was a no-show. 

That's because Larry Page, CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, declined invitations to testify. The Senate also rebuffed Google's offer of its chief of global affairs, saying it wasn't interested in the testimony of anyone below Google's C-suite.

It may only be a matter of time before Google gets called in front of Congress again, and next time, the company will have little recourse but to send its top executives, analysts say. The tech industry is under increasing scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers over its handling (or mishandling) of fake news, hate speech, online harassment and interference by foreign actors in US elections. Lawmakers remain angry over the role YouTube, owned by Google, played in the 2016 US presidential election. Russian trolls used the video service, along with Facebook and Twitter, to spread misinformation and sow discord among voters.

"They can't bury their heads in the sand," Bob O'Donnell, president of Technalysis Research, said of Page and Pichai. "Probably one of those two will have to testify at some point." 

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A Google spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the decision to not send Page or Pichai to the hearing or how the decision would affect the company in the future. But she said Google sent Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs, because he's the executive responsible for election security and preventing foreign interference.

'Shadow over the hearing'

Google reaches billions of people with its search, news, maps and web browsing services. And while 45 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook, the second most popular source is YouTube, with 18 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, Google is the only one of the big three tech companies that hasn't sent its CEO to a congressional hearing since the 2016 election. In April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in the wake of the social network's Cambridge Analytica data scandal. And when Facebook, Twitter and Google were called to testify last November, each company sent its top lawyer. (In Google's case, that was Walker.)

Meanwhile, the search giant is facing issues that seem ripe for discussion at a future congressional hearing. 

  • With only weeks to go before this year's US midterm elections, foreign powers are still using Google services to try to sway public opinion. Last month, Google said it removed 58 accounts tied to Iran from its services. That includes 39 channels on YouTube, six blogs on its Blogger site and 13 accounts from its Google+ social network.
  • President Donald Trump, without providing any evidence, accused Google multiple times last week of conservative bias, tweeting that search results are "rigged." He later told reporters that "Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people."
  • Google is reportedly working on a censored search and news app meant for China. Sen. Mark Warner, Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman and a Democrat from Virginia, called out the effort as one of the most pressing issues he would have asked Google about.
  • Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to re-examine Google's search and digital advertising practices, calling reports of anticompetitive conduct by the company "disquieting."
  • Google is getting blowback for its broad data collection practices. The company drew criticism last month after the AP reported that Google still collects location data on users, even when a setting called Location History is turned off.

The list goes on. That's why lawmakers are eager to get Google in front of them.

"Google was the shadow over the hearing," said James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. "It's not going away."

Congress could send letters to Google or even subpoena its CEO to testify, Norton said.

Asked about the possibility of a subpoena, Warner said he wouldn't go that far. But he also wouldn't rule it out as an option. "We've been trying to do this in a way that's been collaborative," he told CNBC after this week's hearing. But, he added, "we're going to keep all our tools."

'The unknown'

Google drew so much criticism for not attending the hearing that many wondered if the company made the right call. 

The company may have concluded that its best decision was to skip the hearing: It might have wanted to distance itself from Facebook and Twitter, which are traditional social media companies in a way that Google isn't. Or the company may have been wary of how Pichai or Page -- both highly technical and not known for being charismatic speakers -- would have performed. "There could have been a concern over the image they might present," said O'Donnell.

But Dorsey -- who isn't polished either and who described himself as "shy" during his testimony -- got decent reviews. So Google's leadership might be more confident about testifying going forward, said O'Donnell.

"It could have just been a fear of the unknown," he said.

CNET's Erin Carson contributed to this report. 

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